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I’ve been reading a lot lately about the so-called “War on Obesity” and find myself wondering about both the terminology and the idea of waging war on what amounts to a difference between people, much like skin color, age, or gender. Now before you fly into righteous umbrage at my comparison of weight (which many people believe to be completely controllable, much like smoking) to factors that are completely out of one’s control, please listen to one fact: Weight is in between controllable and uncontrollable. I know, I know…I can hear the vitriol on both sides of this issue pour forth…sigh. However, research shows that body weight is as about much genetics and biochemistry as it is sensible eating and exercising.  Ok – one argument down – it’s not completely controllable, and it’s not completely uncontrollable – so let’s get on to the meat of this idea.

Given that whatever the cause we know that people who are overweight and obese suffer discrimination, I wonder if our “war on obesity” actually amounts to war on the obese. Study after study has documented that overweight men and especially overweight women experience discrimination in their jobs and in the rest of their lives (see http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/weightloss/2008-05-20-overweight-bias_N.htm and http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/BeautySecrets/story?id=4568813&page=1 for more information). We hear terms such as “fatty,” “pig,” “heifer,” or “fat cow” more often than many of us care to admit. We’re oinked at, barked at, and yelled at. We get rejected by dates, bosses, and family members because of our appearance. In this war on obesity, the obese are the casualties. My question is, does it have to be this way?

I get that obesity is not healthy, again no matter the cause. But if that’s true, why don’t we support the obese in their attempts to become healthy? Discriminating against people does not cause them to be more motivated to change; rather, it pushes people into resentment, anger and defensiveness, making them less likely to change. When you see someone who is overweight out walking, or exercising in any way, what stops you from saying, “Way to go! Awesome!” rather than “Fat Rear” or “Moo”? Why aren’t there more plus-size exercise clothes, exercise equipment, etc? If we truly want to fight obesity and help people get healthier, we need to STOP discriminating and start motivating.

Any psychologist can tell you that reinforcement (rewarding behavior you want to see increase) works way better than punishment – so why do we punish people and expect the behavior we want to see increase? It simply doesn’t work that way – punishment is designed to decrease a behavior. So guess what – when you discriminate against overweight/obese people, you’re NOT motivating them. In fact, you’re decreasing the likelihood that they’ll want to engage in change behaviors.

In this war on the obese, if we really want to see change, we’ll reward the behaviors we want to see – we’ll make accomodations to exercise equipment, we’ll make more comfortable, attractive workout clothes, and we’ll make access to health care services targeted to obesity more affordable and less stigmatizing. We’ll support people who are working on their weight AND we’ll recognize that people do come in different sizes – and that’s ok. We’ll support movements like Health At Every Size (http://haescommunity.org/). Most of all, we’ll accept that people who are obese having feelings, and have the same rights and privileges as every other person when it comes to access to jobs, employment assessments, and salaries/promotions – size simply is NOT an indicator of worth.

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What seems to be a weed, may be a bouquet of blessings in disguise (image copyright 2009, Laura Burlingame-Lee)

What seems to be a weed, may be a bouquet of blessings in disguise (image copyright 2009, Laura Burlingame-Lee)

I recently had a couple of lessons on appearances and judging people by their appearances. I was on the receiving end of an act of verbal violence when someone drove by and yelled, “Fat Rear!” Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident for me – I’ve been “moo’d” (as have many of you, unfortunately), barked at, and been called “a dog.” We live in a society where a person’s worth is initially judged by their appearance – a quick judgment that often dismisses a person before we even know anything about who they are.

Glenna Peterson, a columnist for the Idaho Statesman, wrote that:

Height, weight, shape, hairstyle, dress, age, complexion – all are things we see and catalog when we look at others. When they open their mouths, we note accents, grammar, speech patterns, and make more notes in our mental catalog.

There is an old adage that “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” While external clues may give us information about the person, they do not really give us the full picture – and often we make a decision without all the facts. My mother often lamented what she referred to as a “rush to judgment,” noting the times she had written off someone, based on appearance, who on closer acquaintance displayed personal qualities that led to admiration and friendship.

I suspect most of us have had such an experience. While appearance can provide some clues regarding a person, it does not tell us about the “real” person.

She hit the nail on the head in this article. And even though I had so recently been the victim of such judging, I found myself doing the judging a few days later.

After being at my mom’s in Orem for a few days, we left to head to Idaho to visit my husband’s parents. This was a long, tiring drive and by the time we were a few hours away from Boise, we were all cranky and sticky and dirty. The kidlets needed a potty break and we needed gas, so we stopped in this little brush town called Rupert. What initially looked like a travel plaza turned out to be a refurbished hotel that was turned into a gas station/convenience store. The restrooms were outside, and so I took little Becca to use the girls room. We locked the door, and a few minutes later heard a knock – I said, “We’ll be right out.”

When I opened the door, I was faced with a large woman with tattoos, long dyed platinum blonde hair, tight “biker” leathers and T-shirt – if you’ve ever seen the “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” and know his wife, Beth – this lady could have been a much larger, dusty ringer for her. And I – who had so recently been judged myself on the basis of my appearance – fell into the trap.

All the stereotypes of bikers came up. I was immediately concerned for my daughter’s safety even though NOTHING even remotely threatening had occurred. We came out, and I smiled and said, “Sorry we were taking so long, she’s just starting to use the potty.” Here’s the thing, though – even though I didn’t SAY anything offensive, I was caught in the trap just as surely as were the young men who yelled at me.

My daughter – being the little extravert that she is – beamed up a huge grin and said, “Hi!” The woman smiled at me and said “hi” to Becca, and then smiled again and said, “She’s a little doll isn’t she?” She was a nice, friendly person and I’d almost missed the chance to find that out because of MY prejudices and biased thinking. Again, I learned a lesson – one that seem to need to learn over and over again – you can’t judge people by what they look like. Really.

I’ve heard that we keep gettings experiences designed to teach us, until we learn the lesson these experiences teach. If that’s the case, I must have a long way to go. I learn each time something like this happens, though – and I’m grateful for the lessons even if they ARE painful on occasion. So, I keep trying – I keep forgiving those who hurt me, and I try to be a better person myself. In a way, I hope I keep learning because it means I’m still growing – and I never want to stop learning or growing.

Glenna Peterson also wrote,

By looking only at the external we may miss opportunities to learn and grow from the interaction with a special person. I look at pictures of famous people who have contributed to mankind: Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela. Some of them are not attractive. Others might be discounted because of gender or color of skin. But reading their words or others’ accounts of them leaves me wishing I had known them.

I agree with my sister-in-spirit here – attractiveness, skin color, weight, height, hair color, skin condition – any physical attribute that you can think of simply doesn’t matter and has no bearing on what kind of person someone is. The clothes they wear, the car they drive, the state of their home – it may give you information on how they live their live, but it doesn’t tell what kind of person they are.

I hope that someday I can be as gracious and wise as Ms. Peterson – as well as the people she mentioned in her article. At this point though – I have a long journey ahead and the road is long. And I’d better get started on that path.

Till next time, when we meet again – God/dess be with you and may your days be full of love and acceptance.

Reflections of Reflections…

Other Facets of the Mirror